Why I’m Afraid to Start Fishing for Steelhead

This is the first column I ever wrote about the business of steelheading. The late Jug Beck, who read this column and laughed, told me that as far as he knew, that story about the anonymous wrestler was true.


I have just about given up on waiting for the call. I mean the call from you know who you are out there who promised, ” I’ll call you one of these days and I’ll take you over to the Clearwater and show you how to catch those steelhead.”


That particular promise is soon to take its place on the list of great lies, up there with “The check is in the mail.”


I have never fished for steelhead. One of the reasons I use to explain why I haven’t is that nobody has ever taken me along to show me the ropes. Sure, I know that’s a pretty lame excuse. I know I could head for Idaho and be fishing in no time, and eventually I would figure out how to do it, just by watching the other people if nothing else.

Nope, the real reason I have never fished for steelhead is that I am afraid to do it. It’s all because of a wrestling tournament I went to in 1966, in Ames, Iowa, of all places.


Actually, it was the NCAA Championship wrestling tournament and I was there spectating with some of my college wrestling buddies, all of whom had had their seasons end before the National Tournament. I was excited though, because of a couple of Montana products, Missoula fellows in fact, who were in the tournament, and I was eager to show my Midwestern teammates how good the wrestling was in Montana.


Well one of those Montana guys, Gene Davis, won the tournament. In wrestling circles, that is a real big deal, second only to winning the Olympics, which Davis later came pretty close to doing eventually too. But what about the other guy? I’m not going to name names here, because I might have my facts wrong, but here is the story as I know it.

This Missoula fellow was wrestling for Oregon State, THE wrestling school on the West Coast in those days. He had won the then Pac-Eight conference title in his weight class and was clearly one of the favorites for the National Title. He had trained and starved and practiced and suffered for years to put himself in a position to challenge for the NCAA championship. This was it. It was now or never.


He was in Ames the night before the tournament. His coach saw him talking earnestly on a pay phone in a Howard Johnson’s Restaurant. Soon after the telephone conversation, he approached his coach and announced that a family emergency had come up and he had to return to Oregon immediately. That was it. He was gone. Only later was it revealed that the family emergency was the first spring steelhead sightings on his favorite river. He was desperate not to miss even an extra day or two of spring steelheading. He gave up wrestling immortality for it.


Now I may have that all wrong, and I hope his old high school coach Jug Beck will correct me if I do, but truth or fiction, it is an example of what steelheading apparently does to lots of people.


Back then, I would never have been able to explain to my friends from the Midwest why a fellow Montanan would give up so much for the sake of fishing. I think I could do a better job today.

From what they say, once you tie into one of those slab-sided piscatorial runaway freight trains, your life is never the same afterward. In the extreme, it has been compared to crack cocaine in addictiveness. Others simply say that it is like elk hunting, once the bug gets you, there’s nothing you can do but hope to outgrow it. There are steelheaders I know who nail the heads and tails of their fish to walls inside their dusty barns and workshops, like old elk racks. It’s not the same thing as stuffing a fish or animal for public display. It’s more like a private reminder, like a picture of your kid in your wallet.

One of the things that scares me the most about steelheading is that I feel the strongest attraction to what must be the lunatic fringe of the sport. That’s the folks who fly fish for steelhead and then release them once they’ve caught them.


That’s scary because if you put them back, you never have to quit. You never get your limit, and you can fish as long as the season is open. The fact that it requires long drives in the middle of the night and long days fishing in the worst weather of the year is only an added inducement, I suspect, once you’re hooked. That’s because the willingness to put up with such discomfort just to catch a fish sets you apart from the average angler. It makes you feel special. It is difficult then, I bet, to think of anything but steelhead.


That kind of mindset is not exactly just what the doctor ordered when it comes to family life. I suspect it is safe to speculate that more than one marriage has been severely tested because of steelhead fishing. As long as I don’t get that call, mine won’t be one of them.


Anyway, you know who out there, I’m still waiting for the call, but if there’s a wrestling tournament anywhere in the vicinity, I might watch that instead.

Categories: Connections, Fishing, Friendship, Gratitude, Traditions